Bird Flu Risk for Quake Victims Living in Chicken Coops

The chicken coops in Indonesia's earthquake-flattened Pentong village are filled with salvaged TVs, cooking utensils, refrigerators — and scores of people. Aid workers fear they could also contain bird flu.

Flies buzz everywhere, as children play barefoot on a bamboo slat floor encrusted with chicken droppings. Nearby chicken feeding trays hold traces of rat waste.

Many in Pentong — and in a broad swath of Java island — lost their homes when a powerful earthquake struck a week ago, killing more than 6,200 people. Most survivors are living under plastic tarps or in any other shelter they can find.

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"We are staying here because our houses were destroyed," said Parji, 60, the owner of one of two large chicken sheds where more than 50 people are living. Like many Indonesians, he uses one name.

Aid officials say they're worried the survivors could catch bird flu. The number of human cases has rocketed in Indonesia in the past month, and some cases have been reported in districts around the quake zone. At least 37 Indonesians have died.

"We are concerned that people using poultry sheds as shelter are at risk from avian flu and possibly salmonella infection," said Dr. Yolanda Bayugo, health director in Indonesia for British-based aid group Merlin.

The risk may be low — experts say the H5N1 virus is very hard for humans to catch, and the number of World Health Organization-confirmed cases is 49 among Indonesia's 220 million people.

But they also fear that if the virus mutates into a form easily passed between people, it could cause a pandemic that could kill millions.

Parji said Pentong's 1,000 people spent two nights in nearby mountains after the earthquake, worried that it would trigger a tsunami that would inundate the village — even though the ocean is six miles away.

A giant quake off western Indonesia in 2004 spawned the massive Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 131,000 people in Indonesia. No tsunami followed last week's quake.

"On Monday, some of us came back and moved into this coop, but first we cleaned it as much as we could," Parji said. The 2,500 chickens, he said, had been sold shortly before the quake.

The villagers moved all their rescued possessions inside and spread sleeping mats on floor.

Parji said he isn't afraid of bird flu, and no one has advised them to leave.

"There is a slight smell from the dung, but I look after the health of my birds," he said. "I am certain there is no bird flu here."

Other villagers are living in another coop nearby.

"On Monday there were 100 people here, but now there are 25," said Mursin, 36, cradling her 9-month-old nephew inside the coop.

"I'm not afraid of bird flu," said her 21-year-old sister, Karpinah. "It's all a myth. It's OK here. There's no problem."

The quake's human toll was far on both women's minds.

Their father, 70, died protecting his 6-year-old grandson from a falling beam, they said.

Merlin has urged authorities to provide tents to the survivors in the coops.

"There were chickens there a week prior to the quake. It's definitely a concern given the (bird flu) situation," said Jacqueline Koch, Merlin's spokeswoman in Indonesia.